'Last Dance?' Why it's vital for Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints to win now

METAIRIE, La. -- Drew Brees smiled while he deftly avoided the question as if he were sidestepping a pass-rusher in the pocket.

Has the New Orleans Saints quarterback already made a decision about whether he plans to retire after this season?

“I’ve made a decision about being the best I can be this week so we can go win this game so we can keep playing,” said the 20-year NFL veteran, who will turn 42 five days after the Saints host the Chicago Bears on Sunday (4:40 p.m. ET, CBS).

There are several indications this playoff run could indeed be Brees’ curtain call.

As ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported, Brees initially told the Saints last February he planned to retire before changing his mind, and the team has been operating as if this year will be his last. Brees already has his next gig lined up as an analyst for NBC. And injuries may have provided an extra nudge when Brees missed four games with a punctured lung and 11 broken ribs in November.

When asked this week if he wants his quest to reach a second Super Bowl to be a motivating factor for his teammates, Brees said, “All I know is this. I didn’t come back to play this season for myself. I came back for my team. I came back for the city, I came back for the organization. That’s why I’m here.”

Furthermore, the Saints (12-4) will be facing some severe salary-cap limitations when this season is over.

According to ESPN’s Roster Management System, they have more than $276 million in salary-cap commitments heading into 2021 -- the highest total in the NFL -- with 43 players on the books. And the league’s cap could drop as low as $175 million per team because of lost revenues from the pandemic (though it could climb higher, especially if a 17th game is added to the schedule).

In other words, the Saints are about as “win now” as it gets. Especially after three gut-wrenching playoff exits over the past three seasons.

None of that will change Brees’ mindset, however. He has already been taking an all-in approach for years.

As Brees told ESPN last year, it was almost four years to this day -- after the Saints had just missed the playoffs for the third consecutive year -- that he made a conscious decision to start playing one year at a time and enjoying “each and every one of these like it could be gone."

“Honestly, I have played the last four seasons in a row as if it was my last,” Brees reiterated this week. “So as I sit here right now, my approach is very much the same.”

Salary cap looming

The “Last Dance” comparison to the 1998 Chicago Bulls isn’t a perfect one. Even if Brees retires and the Saints lose their version of Michael Jordan, their roster and coaching staff won’t be totally dismantled in the same fashion.

Barring any surprise trades or retirements, the Saints should still be loaded with some of the NFL’s best assets -- Michael Thomas, Alvin Kamara, Terron Armstead, Ryan Ramczyk, Cameron Jordan, Demario Davis and Marshon Lattimore -- led by coach Sean Payton. And Payton has suggested multiple times the next quarterback is already “in the building,” whether it be Taysom Hill or Jameis Winston.

However, financial sacrifices will have to be made. New Orleans won’t have quite this same immense collection of talent on the roster again.

The Saints can find ways to get under the salary cap next year without a complete overhaul. For starters, they’ll save at least $13.5 million in cap space if Brees retires -- and maybe more if they get creative. (They still have to account for a hefty $22.65 million in dead money that they have pushed back from past contracts, but that would still be a savings from his scheduled cap figure of $36.15 million).

They can also restructure several other contracts to push millions of dollars of 2021 cap costs into future years. They can release a handful of veteran players that they deem expendable or work out pay cuts (LB Kwon Alexander is one candidate after he recently suffered a torn Achilles). And they could potentially sign extensions with guys like Armstead, Ramczyk or Lattimore that lower their cap hits in the short term.

However, the Saints won’t be able to keep all of those guys while also re-signing their pending free agents (Winston, safety Marcus Williams, defensive end Trey Hendrickson, defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins and tight end Jared Cook, among others). And it will harder than usual for them to spend big on any new additions.

That’s part of the reason why they have openly embraced a “Super Bowl or bust” mentality since the start of training camp.

“What else are we playing for?" Armstead said this summer after he was the first to use that phrase. "That’s it; that’s the only goal. Especially for a team that really feels like we can do it.”

Payton also recently acknowledged he is well aware of the expectation level his team has earned both inside and outside the building.

“Will it need to be the Super Bowl? Yeah, probably so,” Payton said. “But you know what? That’s a good measuring stick. And that gives you an indication of how organizationally the culture's changed. And we embrace that.”

‘Can’t skip the process’

Receiver Emmanuel Sanders, who went to Super Bowls with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Denver Broncos and San Francisco 49ers before signing with New Orleans this season, said he recognizes this team’s mentality.

"I've been on a team like that. In '15, it was Super Bowl or bust,” Sanders said of the 2015 Broncos team that won the title in Peyton Manning’s final season.

“But truthfully, we don’t even pay attention to it,” Sanders insisted. “We just take it one game at a time. Obviously the end goal for everybody is to win a Super Bowl. But at the same time, we can't get there and just skip the whole process of it. So it's a process, and it starts with Chicago next week."

That has been a popular refrain throughout the locker room all week -- sticking with the process.

Payton said most of this team has been a part of both playoff wins and tough playoff losses, including that “bitter taste of an early out” last year when they were upset at home by the Minnesota Vikings in the wild-card round.

“This whole team, we’ve got high goals, and yet you focus right now on the task at hand,” Payton said. “I don’t think as a coach you have to remind them this is the playoffs. I think as a coach, you remind them of what wins in the playoffs. … That’s ultimately the fundamentals of what we’ve taught all year.”

Of course, the Saints recognize what the opportunities are. It has now been 11 years since they won the franchise’s only Super Bowl. And they have experienced six painful playoff exits over that span (including the missed pass interference call in 2018, the “Minneapolis Miracle” in 2017 and two 13-3 teams that suffered-last second losses in 2011 and 2019).

But when asked if there is an awareness among players that they will only get so many more cracks at it with Brees at quarterback, Jordan said, “Who looks big picture like that?”

“For everybody on the team, there’s limited opportunities, right?” said Cook, who has played 12 seasons with five different teams. “For everybody in this league there's limited opportunities. So I think whenever you get these opportunities, I think it's imperative to take advantage of them.

“So I think every team definitely has that ‘Super Bowl or bust’ mentality. I don't necessarily think it’s different (with the 2020 Saints) other than the fact that like, I feel like this team is special, man.”

Davis, who didn’t make the playoffs in his first six years with the New York Jets and Cleveland Browns before he joined the Saints in 2018, said, “The only thing that we’re promised is this moment.”

“That’s the only clock that you can be looking at,” Davis said. “And it's all about what we do with it right now.”